Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jesse Pinkman, the Killer with a Conscience, the Boy Searching for his Lost Innocence

Between ‘just desserts’ and ‘tragic irony’ we are given quite a lot of scope for our particular talent. Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got about as bad as they reasonably get. (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Poor Jesse Pinkman. He began as a lost child cast out by parents practicing tough love upon him. They released him into the wild in order to protect their second son, one who dissembles enough to con his parents into believing he’d never stash a joint in their house. Jesse takes the blame, his own profligacy driving him to protect the boy from harsh parental judgements.

Too young to make good choices and friends with guys without a strong internalized moral code, Jesse operates in a opportunistic underground. He and his friends make money by selling meth and spending much of their income on meth or other illegal escapes.

Both wastrel and waif, Jesse drifts into a partnership with Walter White, his former Chemistry teacher, and soon, he’s disposing of his first body, an interloper felled when Mr. White’s clever use of chemicals cooks the crook's lungs. This event and the fallout forever seal the relationship. Mr. White, originally the Alpha by virtue of an education and his age, earns a permanent Alpha crown never to be challenged for it again. He outwits and mans up more than once to save Jesse and himself while growing their meth business into the best because together, Jesse and Mr. White produce the best, purest meth.

Jesse learns a work ethic and becomes an excellent meth cook, but he still likes to indulge, to get high. His is an addictive personality, and he cannot ignore what he’s done. He melts that first dead body using acid, an act that requires a strong stomach and a commitment that few of us possess. He must look upon the body formerly animated as a thing for the sewer, a glob of flesh, nothing more. 

Walter has his own body to deal with, a partner to the body Jesse liquidates, but Walter’s burden is alive, tied up in Jesse’s basement where he plots to kill Walter and save himself. Walter is too clever, however, and realizes the danger just in time. He kills the man, clumsily but finally. Now Walter has taken two lives, and Jesse has helped him dispose of the waste. Walter will go on to kill two more in order to save and protect Jesse, but thereafter, he prefers to order and orchestrate the deaths of enemies and threats, rarely doing his own blood work. Jesse, Mike, Todd, and Todd’s contacts are the killers.

Only Jesse feels sorrow. He’s horrified by what he’s done and grows more and more reckless. He seeks solace in drug-induced stupors and women in need, one of whom overdoses with Walter looking on, doing nothing to save her, instead letting her go so that Jesse’s loyalties and time will no longer be divided. Jesse never suspects.

"Esperanza Sky," A Photo by Al Griffin

Jesse also feels with the children. While in the home of meth derelicts, Jesse empathizes with the toddler and calls authorities in behalf of the child. Later, when he meets Andrea, Jesse lifts her and her son from jeopardy, poor neighborhoods, and want. What he cannot save her from is Mr. White who manipulates Jesse into trusting him once more by saving the boy. What Jesse does not know is that the boy nearly died as a result of Walter’s use of a chemical toxin in a plant that happens to grow in pots beside Mr. White's backyard pool. Worse, the boy survives only to become a waif like Jesse when Jesse's efforts to shed the skin of a criminal brings Andrea back into jeopardy. She's slaughtered, leaving the boy without his mother. 

Jesse could not anticipate that Todd would execute Andrea, but he knew how cold-blooded were Todd's kin, and he strove to leave them and their evil behind.  Unable to abide the barbarism that accompanies drug-making and dealing, Jesse must withdraw to survive; he loathes himself for his role, however tangentially, in any death accidental or undertaken with malice aforethought. He might have killed himself had Mike not shown him another way, befriending the boy even as he tests his loyalties and tries to salvage his meth-making talents for Gus Fring. For Jesse, Mike is a father-figure, capable of passing on life lessons and hard truths, not just a loyal Fring advisor.

Mr. White’s ambition ruins that temporary place Jesse finds safe. Walter executes Gus Fring, freeing himself to take over as Heisenberg and deliver pure meth to an international market. Mike and Jesse do not want to accompany Walter on his ascension to number-one meth provider. They want to take their money and live so they negotiate an exit even though Walter does not want to let them go.

"Chain," A Photo by Al Griffin

Then Mike disappears. Viewers know that Mr. White killed him, but Jesse can only suspect. Nevertheless, Jesse cannot go on without a Mike alive somewhere in this world. Afraid to answer the door if Mr. White is on the other side, ashamed of his ill-gotten gains, and unwilling to return to Andrea lest he endanger her, Jesse slides into another depression made worse by alcohol. He gives away his money in a foolish, public way, bringing him under scrutiny and ultimately into the clutches of Hank Schrader desperate to prove Walter’s guilt. And once again, Jesse falls under the spell of a father-figure. He agrees to help bring down Walter White, but finds he doesn’t--cannot feel clean again. Sullied and as lost as ever, Jesse tries to outwit Walter White, but Todd shows up and sees Jesse’s potential--not as a guy in need of second-chances, not as a young man in pain, but as an excellent meth cook.

So the hell that Jesse hoped to escape, the hell that has soured his soul and raised a stench from deep within him is the hell he must endure. He’s still part of making meth, of raw ambition, of greed. He dwells among dissemblers, murderers, and thieves. And his drive to escape only leads him to more sorrow: Andrea's execution as a lesson against escape.

Just desserts? I don’t think so. Jesse is flawed. He’s fallen, his belly in the dust, more than once. He’s suffered in the knowledge of his deeds. Like Lady Macbeth, he’s found that there is not enough perfume on earth to sweeten his filthy hands, soothe him to sleep, or cleanse his spirit. He even tried to redeem himself by bringing down Mr. White whom Jesse now knows is a devil, but he failed and fell into the muck once more.

"Evening Sky," A Photo by Al Griffin

But the end to which Jesse seems to have come is definitely tragic irony. Others may have stumbled upon good fortune here or there, but Fortune never graced poor Jesse. He tried to rise, to create his own good fortune, but was denied. Like Oedipus, Jesse has been cursed by his own hand. And irony imbues Jesse’s tragic end because what he most desires to escape is what he runs into headlong. For him, things have come to an end for they have gotten as bad as they can reasonably get.

Reading Challenge:

Read Breaking Bad from Episode 1 to the last.

Writing Challenge:

Jesse Pinkman is a foil, an antagonist, and a tragic figure. Choose just one of his roles and develop an analytical literary essay about it.

Post Script: Last week, Walter White seemed to care about his family. Their need--not for a moral center--but for money drives him into the snow in order to send a box of cash to them. When he calls to inform his son, Walter hears his son's disdain and appears to care. He even calls the DEA in order to confess, we guess, but when he sees a televised Charlie Rose interview with his former business partners, the ones who now belong in the world of Corporate Wealth, he departs, moved, it seems, by their dismissal of him as gone, dead in spirit, not the man that the wife once loved. Once more, it appears that money and power and vengeance are the sirens who sing to Walter, not family, but the final episode on Sunday will show us the ends to which this man brings himself. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Okay, Walter White, I'm Ready to Let You Go

A recent post declared that I will miss Walter White. Today I admit I’m over him. My Facebook feed warns me that mine is a minority opinion. Other viewers, at least those in my small circle on Facebook, seem thrilled, surprised, and eager for the next episode in the few remaining for the series, Breaking Bad. I’m not thrilled. I am, however, surprised. Still I’ll watch the two remaining episodes with dread, definitely not eager. Here’s why: Consistency is all I ask! (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead)

Inconsistency in character diminishes my pleasure. In fact, mystery writers who drag a minor character center-stage to star as the killer, as Agatha Christie occasionally did, seem to me to have defaulted on a contract between author and reader. If clues and hints, however subtle, were completely absent, if nothing in the character’s nature matches the nature of the crime, and if I must be told, as Poirot often told, why and how a crime took place, I’m not inclined to close the book satisfied and so far, I’m not satisfied with the inconsistencies in character in the final season of Breaking Bad.

Marie, Hank, and Saul all seem to have evolved along expected lines. Marie, the consummate enabler, is a tiny moon caught in the orbit of larger planets. She serves Skyler’s needs, cares for Skyler’s children, labors to make Hank whole, and lives as an upright citizen after that minor blip as a shoplifter. She’s become a clueless moral center with a healthy human slice of fair play. She wants bad guys dragged into the town square and shamed, especially because those bad guys threaten her husband, niece, and nephew.

Hank was an inept DEA agent from the first episodes. He proves he’s unprofessional when he discusses cases with his wife and brother-in-law. He proves he’s not the most astute observer of human nature when he fails to notice his wife’s kleptomania and falls for melodrama, believing Walter and Skyler’s fiction about gambling, marital strife, infidelity, and law-abiding convictions. In a final proof of his incompetence, he asks one other DEA agent to help him bring down Walter White, a man he knows to be a murderer, bomber, and blackmailer. He thinks two lone men, standard weapons at the ready, badges on display, are sufficient against a crime boss whom he acknowledges as the most intelligent man he knows, the same crime boss that assassinated ten witnesses. Hank simply didn’t deserve to survive so many errors in judgment.

Saul was and remains the consummate opportunist. He knows guys who know guys. He hires others to do the ugly, physical work sometimes required, and he’s practical, recognizing that appeasement is a necessary survival skill and that Jesse needs to be eliminated. Saul will take his thirty pieces of silver and live to slither another day.

But Skyler and Walter? Those two haven’t just turned a corner; they transmogrified, rendering me indifferent to the ends to which they come.

First, Skyler is a vessel into which writers poured the convoluted ways in which mere humans deal with catastrophic losses and humdrum challenges. Pregnant with a second child, mother to a special needs son, she learns that her husband, Walter, has advanced lung cancer. The White family lacks funds sufficient to save her husband’s life, even with health care, and she turns to old friends with money for help. She also enters into an affair with a former flame, in part because she lives with anticipatory grief, but viewers must recall that Skyler was never a noble gal. She aided and abetted illegality. She literally cooked the books to cover embezzlement. Later, in a series of gross misjudgments, she tried to save Ted the embezzler, then let him go to terrible ends, if necessary, to save herself.

She’s also shown the paralysis that sometimes grips us mortals when we cannot comprehend our own venal and mortal sins. She drank too much, lied easily, and staged a suicide attempt in full view of those who would save her in order to slough off her responsibilities as a mother and citizen confined by the laws of man and moral codes. Aware that her husband mutated into something unrecognizable, she indulged herself until she decided to become a participating co-conspirator. She, like Saul, recognized the need to eliminate Jesse, admitting that they, Mr. and Mrs. White, have already committed so many crimes, why not commit one more?

Perhaps more important, Skyler confirms her ignobility when, cornered by Hank, she waits to learn what he really knows, reasons that he must not be able to prove much or he would have arrested her, and advises Walter not to panic. She then helps Walter create a video that will force Hank to be silent, and she coughs up the words, “I’m sorry” only when confronted by Marie even though viewers know Skyler cares little for Marie or Hank. She was not coerced into making that video. She accepted risks and let Walter set the course, but now, the writers ask me to believe, she throws away all that composure, lays down all her cards, and bares her raw naked sin before her son. Foul, I cry.

Equally foul is the turn that Walter White has taken. He began as a man with absolutely nothing to lose if life itself is the only measure of worth. He looked into the deserts of … eternity (Marvell) and decided, none do there grow wealthy. He calculated loss against gain, deciding that his sole noble end was to leave his family wealthy enough to endure and enjoy. Thus, his ambition, borne in necessity, burns hot, and he sets out to use his education and skill to produce the purest, most desirably addictive methamphetamine. To this end, Walter transformed himself into a bad ass with street credibility sufficient to fight off competitors and anyone who would own his talent. He meets monsters, including men in snake-skin boots dragging themselves through the dust, men who decapitate other men and plant a severed head upon the back of a tortoise, men who slaughter a loyal servant in order to smother all impulse to flee or defy him.  And Walter becomes a monster himself, one capable of standing by as a drug addict drowns in her own vomit, of endangering a boy’s life, of orchestrating the assassination of ten men, of designing a second Great Train Robbery, and of ruining the soul of Jesse Pinkman, a misguided boy in need of a parent who will care for him and more important, forgive him for being lost.

Now writers ask me to believe that in spite of all his ruthless barbarism delivering dishes best served cold, Walter is little more than a needy, rash desperado. He who leaves no traces of his hand at work, he who anticipates the worst and redirects it, and he who wields power and wit like razor-sharp weapons can no longer think, reason, or abide. Walter spills all the truth over an open phone as he leaves a dusty trail racing to his money--as if money is all the treasure he requires in the days he has remaining, as if power and persona did not intoxicate and at last poison him. Writers ask me to accept that he could sacrifice a child, meth cooks, and crooks, but he refuses to sacrifice Hank, a man whom he’s mocked and manipulated. Writers expect me to believe that Heisenberg never really existed; he was just a mask that Walter donned. And worst of all, writers ask me to believe that Walter would snatch his baby daughter and leave her alone, sobbing, to make his escape with $11 million and teach Skyler a lesson, one that he preaches over the phone, believing her lie that she’s alone at home begging for her child rather than surrounded by police whom Junior summoned after a knife-fight between his heretofore caring parents.

I object! Neither Skyler nor Walter are characters who act foolishly in desperate times; their sense of self-preservation is too great. I also object to these confessions. Neither Skyler nor Walter have shown any real remorse and therefore, they are not now on a path to redemption. Skyler’s confession to Junior and Walter’s unwillingness to let Jack assassinate Hank are simply inconsistent, and therefore, the last episodes of the final season dissatisfy--unless, of course, some M. Night Shyamalan Sixth Sense ending awaits me and this has all been an elaborate ruse, but I digress.

To save themselves from joining the ranks of the Literary Damned, Skyler and Walter must uncover genuine remorse, a path that will require them to confront a truth. They must stare into the vast desert around Albuquerque and search for the moment when they said yes for there was a moment at the beginning, where ...[they] could have said no (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). Mr. and Mrs. White must wish to be transported to that moment and do everything quite differently. They should not rush headlong into the clichéd end of rioters, thieves, and killers, illustrating the equally clichéd truth that no honor exists within them. They should continue as opportunistic organisms until they die, the ruin anticipated for those who fail to uphold moral duties imposed by family, society, and religion.

Reading Challenge:

Read Breaking Bad from Episode 1 to the last.

Writing Challenge:

Select evidence from previous episodes to counter my theses and prove that the final episodes are indeed consistent for the characters noted.

Next Week:

Under my microscope and whether his end is just desserts or tragic irony (Stoppard): Jesse Pinkman

Thursday, September 12, 2013

New Twists in Narrators

Jeffrey Eugenides selected an unusual narrator for his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Middlesex; it is first a zygote, then a young girl, and later, a teenage boy. Although each of these is omniscient, gifted with insights unimaginable in ordinary people, the narrator is also very real, quite human, stumbling along from person to person, experience to experience, learning as she/he goes and guiding the reader through the recent history of Detroit in the twentieth century, of the immigrant experience, and of the struggle to know ourselves.

Nevertheless the story is also a first-person narrative, told from Calliope/Cal’s point of view, an omniscient one. Most editors and many LinkedIn writers’ forum participants would advise against such an unconventional approach, but it works. And it works to make a key point in the novel: genetic code or anomaly is insufficient to explain who and what we are.

Michael Chabon, in Telegraph Avenue, dares to use multiple narrators without separating them by section. A parrot and Barack Hussein Obama, before he became the nation’s forty-fourth president, speak as do fathers, women, sons, and street thugs. Each has a distinct voice that often arrives unannounced. The reader infers, gathers data and learns about the narrator through his words, conflicts, and actions.

Chabon’s narrative choices would most likely find critics among the LinkedIn writers’ forums, but his work receives acclaim because readers experience the novel as they might an immersion course in a foreign language. They enter the novel and must find their way, absorbing cultural understanding and insights as they do.

I caution writers not to imitate Eugenides or Chabon, however. These authors labored years to shape their novels, never settling for less than beautiful expression and the truth as they understand it. They did not choose unusual narrative techniques because they could or on a whim. The story required a new methodology, and as proven masters of the craft, each examined the necessary point of view, then created a structure that would best deliver.

Reading Challenge:

Read Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. Enjoy the story as you study the techniques.

Writing Challenge:

Experiment with point of view. Tell a very short tale from multiple points of view: the tree standing nearby, the adored pet, the ghost of a significant relative, the protagonist, and the antagonist. Learn what each brings to the tale.

A Beloved Pet. What tales would he tell? Snapshot by Al Griffin.

Beloved Pet with Attitude (One generation removed from feral, I suspect) What tales would she tell? My, how those tales might sting. Snapshot by Al Griffin

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Good Stories

“Stories I love operate on three planes at once--the popcorn element that gives you that swept-away feeling; the propulsive engine that enables readers to experience a thrill and be satisfied at the end; a depth that prompts you to an understanding of the author’s intention.” (Words from Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon

I fell for Mr. Percy’s insights upon first reading them. He seems to understand and admire the layers of fiction quite well. Let’s consider them.

First, Percy suggests that the stories he loves are those that carry him away. This is the treasured characteristic that others have called escape, the freedom to unlock the four walls that confine and step into uncharted territories invented and imagined by another. At first, the lay of the land confuses, disturbs, and perhaps, frightens, but persevering, readers understand the signs and signals. They know which way leads north, south, east and west. They’ve grown familiar with the local dialect and special vocabulary. They recognize the residents and recount the history of the place and its people. They live anew, refreshed, differently in this land invented by “…the magic of turning scratches on a page into words inside …[their] head[s]” (John Green, An Abundance of Katherines

Repinned to Pinterest from

Second, Mr. Percy believes that good stories gather speed, perhaps like a roller coaster car that slowly clicks upward, pauses at the top of the arc as if taking a deep breath before plunging over and racing to an end to release enthusiasts back into their lives, relieved to have survived their brushes with danger on the curves, sated and prepared to step back into their routine. In other words, readers journey with authors, slowly at first as they learn to trust and understand each other, but stories that compel, that draw us onward, are those we don’t put down or if we must, put down reluctantly. We readers stay up past our bedtimes to read another page and look forward to an uninterrupted block of time in which to finish a book, hoping as we do that we will not be disappointed. 

We don’t want to find red herrings--those unexpected solutions to a mystery or thriller, the characters that have never been introduced. Equally disappointing is the tried and true, the cliché; e.g., the butler did it. We seek to be informed and delighted, prepared and surprised. Fine literature ties up loose threads and delivers, but sometimes, what we find in the end is still subject to multiple interpretations, a tad ambiguous.

The Giver by Lois Lowry is an excellent example of such ambiguity. Junior high and middle school students often wonder if the boy dies in the end, never reaching the better world that he seeks. Others assert that he surely finds that better place after all. Such ambiguity challenges readers to re-examine the evidence as the author presents it and infer from that evidence a truth, and this is key to Mr. Percy’s third characteristic: good stories are more than a series of events; good stories exist on at least two levels, the literal and the figurative.

Authors intend to show us some truth about the human experience through the specific, concrete people and actions he or she imagines. That truth emerges and engages readers who then “…discover that …[their] longings are universal longings, that …[they’re] not lonely and isolated from anyone. …[They] belong” (F. Scott Fitzgerald). They too have wondered about the many degrees of love explored by Shakespeare and Hosseini. They too have pondered the hatred and brutality portrayed by Conrad and Golding. They too have yearned for one other, for acceptance, and for understanding. They know, through reading, that they are not alone, that theirs are universal musings, experiences, and longings.

Good stories are all of these: stories carry us away, draw us onward, and fulfill us. Find them. Read them. Then write them.

Reading Challenge:

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
The Giver by Lois Lowry

Writing Challenge:

Identify each of Benjamin Percy’s good story traits in the title you are currently reading. Critique the story you’re reading using each of the three traits.